Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: Here’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: So many, many people today who would call themselves Christians, and are in fact members in good standing in many of our local churches, simply do not have a real testimony of a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Lies Women Believe, for Tuesday, October 3, 2017.

Jesus dictated seven letters to John at the beginning of Revelation. Nancy's been studying those letters with us this fall in a number of series. We're in part 6 of that series, taking a look at living churches and dead churches. What are the marks of a dead church?

Here’s Nancy.

Nancy: Jeremy Bentham was a British philosopher and social reformer who died in 1832. He stipulated in his will that his body should be perpetually preserved and displayed in a cabinet. So a large mahogany case was constructed with a plate glass front on the case.

The body of Jeremy Bentham was—well, they did a lot of things to it first, but I won’t go into all that description. But they finally put the body back together and seated him on a chair where he actually used to sit when he was alive, and wearing his own nineteenth century clothing with his walking stick in his hand, and put that body in this position in this case with the glass front.

A friend at the time wrote in a letter, “The likeness is so perfect that it seems as if alive.”

Eventually Bentham’s corpse ended up at the University College London where he’s been on public display since 1850. Tradition has it that Bentham expressed a wish to be present in this state at meetings of the college board. One legend which has been commonly repeated (I’ve done a lot of research on this, but I don’t know if this is true, but it’s been commonly said) that the box with the preserved body with the glass plate front is wheeled into the board meetings every year, and that Bentham’s presence is always recorded in the minutes with these words: “Jeremy Bentham, present but not voting.”1

Now, as I think about Bentham “present but not voting,” I can’t help but think that that’s a picture of a whole lot of folks in our churches today: “present but not voting.” They can’t vote because they’re dead, and when I say voting, I don’t just mean voting in a business meeting. I mean voting with their lives, their hearts, their involvement.

Our churches are filled today with people who are physically present—they’re on display. They look alive and well-preserved, but their heads and their hearts are not engaged in the things of God. They have no capacity to respond to spiritual truth because they’re not alive. They’re spiritually dead.

It’s not always easy to look at these people and obviously know that anything is wrong because, as was said of Bentham’s body, “the likeness was so perfect that it seems as if alive.” It’s not always obvious who’s dead and who’s alive in the church because this is a matter of the heart. It’s something that God knows as He looks at those individuals in those churches.

We started in the last session into the letter to the church in Sardis in Revelation chapter 3. Let me pick up beginning at verse 1 again in that letter:

To the angel of the church of Sardis write: "The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. "I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive.’”

Now, some of your translations say there, “You have a name that you are alive.” That’s a helpful translation because the word reputation there is actually the word for name that appears elsewhere throughout this letter. We’ll see that connection as we move on in this series.

You have a name for being alive—you have a reputation for being alive—but, you are in fact, dead.

As we said in the last session, Sardis had at one time been a magnificent city. It was now in decline, a mere shadow of its former splendor. The church in Sardis had become like the city itself—alive in name only, having a great reputation, but no life. Overall, the church was dead, it was lifeless.

Individuals believers within that church, most of them were dead and lifeless as well. When you fill a church with dead and lifeless people, you are going to have a dead and lifeless church.

Now, let me say that as I started into studying on this series, having just done the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira, I thought to myself: The church in Sardis is going to be a lot easier than Pergamum and Thyatira. There aren’t nearly as many issues to deal with in this church. Well, as I got into it, I found that there a lot of interpretative challenges and the more commentaries I read, the more confused I got at times. So I’m not going to solve all those issues or problems, but I am going to try and give us an overview of what it seems to me that this Scripture is saying.

One of the things that I’ve grappled with is: Who are these people who have a reputation for being alive, but they are actually dead?

Commentators fall into two basic categories on this. Some commentators believe that these are “carnal believers.” They’re Christians, but they’re like comatose. They’re not quite dead; they’re almost dead.

One commentator said, for example, “This is a figurative overstatement that you are dead. It’s intended to emphasis the church’s precarious spiritual state and the imminent danger of its genuine death.”2

I think that’s a possible interpretation of this phrase.

Others would say, and I tend to agree with them, that these are people who are truly spiritually dead. They are not true believers at all. They are what we call today nominal Christians—nominal, in name only. They have a name for being alive, but they are not alive. They’re “cultural Christians,” but they’re not really Christians at all.

The fact is, we have a lot of both kinds of people in the church today, and it’s hard to tell the difference—comatose, dead. I mean, it just all looks the same when you look at these people within the church, and a lot of times it’s hard to tell who really does have spiritual life. We don’t know in many cases. It’s impossible to tell the difference sometimes between the wheat and the tares, in the parable that Jesus told in the gospels, but both of these kinds of people—whether they’re carnal, comatose, or whether they are nominal, spiritually dead—both of those types of people are of concern to Christ and should be of concern to us as well.

By the external appearance of things, these people and this church in Sardis had works. Jesus said, “I know your works.” This is a church that appeared to be flourishing. It appeared to be doing quite well, thank you. “You have a reputation of being alive,” but the fact is, they weren’t alive. They were just a corpse. They were dead. They lacked life.

One commentator said, “There may be prayers, vigils, fasts, temples, altars, priests, rites, ceremonies, worship, and still be no true piety. Heathenism has all these.”3

Lost people can do most of the things that we do in our churches, but that doesn’t make them saved.

The Scripture talks in Hebrews about “dead works.” You can have works that you do, but they’re not works that flow out of the fruit of the Holy Spirit living within you. It’s like sticking fruit on a tree, just attaching it and then calling it a fruit tree. It’s just fruit that’s attached; it’s not fruit that’s been born by that tree.

True Christians will bear the fruit of the Spirit, and it will be done by the Spirit of God who lives within them. They’re alive. There’s life flowing through them, and that brings forth fruit. But for those who are dead, they can attach works to that tree, they can attach good things, but there’s still no life.

Dr. Donald Gray Barnhouse, now with the Lord, pastored for many years in Philadelphia, the city where I grew up. In his commentary on this passage, he says,

It is not scandalous wickedness, but decent death; the form retained, the heart gone; Christ owned in word, ignored in deed; creeds correct, conduct respectable, life departed . . . sound doctrine and outward propriety . . . affections not only waning, but gone. His name held, His Word read, His truth owned, Himself forgotten.4

That’s a description of this church in Sardis. The reputation was that they were alive; the reality was that they were dead. The reputation is what man sees and thinks; the reality is what God sees and knows; and there can be a big difference between reputation and reality.

You can fool others with a reputation. In my house on my piano lid, I have a beautiful arrangement of flowers in this glass vase that has water. Well, it looks like it has water in the bottom of it (and you know where I’m headed with this), these are artificial flowers, but I can’t tell you how many times people have thought they were real. I remember one time somebody going up and telling me how wonderful my flowers were, and they were sure they were real. They said, “I can smell them.”

You can fool others, but you cannot fool God. He knows reality.

Well, they aren’t real, but they look real. They’re deceptive. The reality is different than the perception. You can fool others, but you cannot fool God. He knows the reality.

People evaluate based on external outward appearances and impressions. God evaluates based on the inner heart reality.

In my quiet time a few days ago, I came to that passage in 1 Samuel 16 where Samuel the prophet was going to anoint a king with God’s instruction. It says,

[He] looked on Jesse’s firstborn Eliab, and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him." [Surely this is the one.] But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance [the reputation], but the Lord looks on the heart [the reality]” (vv. 6–7).

When the reality is not the same as the reputation, what we have is hypocrisy—hypocrisy. The world is not attracted to Christians or to churches that give the appearance of being alive, but are really propped up corpses. I think the world often senses that something is not right as they look at us.

I read a report recently that came out of Baptist Press, and I say this, not to pick on the Baptists at all, because something similar could be said of most of our churches and denominations today. But this was in public, in print. It was suggested that one of the reasons Southern Baptists are facing struggles with their evangelism efforts is that many church members may not be saved themselves.

Then it talks about a study that was done by Thom Rainer, who currently is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. In that study, "he found that the evangelistic effectiveness of that denomination has remained fairly stagnant since 1950."5

A Baptist Press commentary by Todd Brady, who is currently a pastor in Paducah, Kentucky, says "that one of the most troubling reasons Rainer gives to the stagnation is 'unregenerate' church members. Brady notes that for the most part, not much is required to join a Southern Baptist church.” And again, you could say this of most of our churches today. “Not much is required: walk down an aisle, nod affirmatively at the pastor’s leading questions, and wait for the congregation to say ‘Amen.’”5

Now, these are not people criticizing the Baptists. These are Baptists saying this about their own denomination. In fact, the study’s assessment is that nearly one-half of all church members may not be Christians. Only God knows the percentage. If I had to guess, I'd say it's a whole lot higher percentage and one-half of church members that may not be Christians.

Brady says, “The conclusion is not hard to draw: an unbelieving church cannot be an evangelistic church, and some would question whether a church half full of unbelievers is even a church in the first place.”5

It’s a good question. It’s a question we need to be asking.

This church in Sardis—maybe we ought to put church in quote marks—this so-called “church,” “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (v. 1). You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead—present but not voting; a propped-up corpse.

What is said of the church of Sardis can be true of entire churches. It can be just as true of individuals within the church. It can be true of families. It can be true of denominations. And I believe, sadly, it is true of evangelicals, as a whole, in our day. “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” You have activity; you get rolled around in your beautiful display box, but there’s no life.

The reputation of being alive—a lot of churches today are very impressive, impressive to others. They have buildings, staff, big budgets, praise bands, worship teams, technology, websites, creativity, organization, marketing campaigns, multiple services, Saturday and Sunday services. There may be others—big numbers, big attendance in some cases, activities and outreaches, and people galore writing reports about how great these churches are. Again, I’m not criticizing big churches; I’m just saying in our churches today, many within them would say, “We’re doing great.” They’re doing a lot of things that are impressive to outsiders—“You have a name, a reputation, for being alive.”

It’s not just true of churches. It’s true of a lot of people, millions of Christians who have a name for being alive. They profess to be Christians. They go to church. They put their kids in Christian school, or they home school their kids, or they’re involved in ministries within public schools. They’re active in the programs of the church. They go to Bible study. On and on—they have a name for being alive; they have a reputation for being alive.

It can be true of families. People may think that you have a great Christian family that you love each other; you’re committed to each other, that somehow you guys are different. But how many of us would have to say that what goes on within the four walls of our homes—if truth be told—is not the same as our reputation? The reality is, our families are dying; they’re fragmented; they’re broken; they’re deeply wounded and greatly in need of the resurrection power of Christ.

“You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”

The dictionary says that a corpse is a "dead body or something that is no longer useful or viable." What a description of so many of our churches and so many who call themselves today Christians.

It brings to mind where Jesus taught in the New Testament about white-washed sepulchers that look great on the outside.

Are you familiar with the word mausoleum? I’ve heard that word, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant until I looked it up yesterday. A mausoleum—the word actually means magnificent tomb. Mausoleum—the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum. Magnificent tombs—many of these are ornate. They’re richly decorated. They have this impressive appearance, but they are filled with dead men’s bones.

Jesus said to the Pharisees of His day, “You are magnificent tombs. You are mausoleums. You are white-washed sepulchers.” That speaks of having form without substance, being busy, being active, but being barren and lifeless inside—having the appearance of godliness but denying its power.

So many, many people today who would call themselves Christians, and are in fact members in good standing of our local churches, simply do not have a real testimony of a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ. They don’t have life. They’re going through the motions, and so many of our churches are living on past glory as Sardis was.

This passage is a warning to quote “great churches” and quote “great believers” who are living on something that may have been true in the past but no longer is true today.

There’s an external appearance of life, of enthusiasm, but it’s not representative of the real heart—people who profess something that they do not possess—big, big difference.

  • They’re active in church and in Christian activities, but they’re passionless and cold and indifferent to the things of God.
  • They don’t have passion for the lost.
  • They are staid, rigid, formal, or they may be exuberant and have a lot of display of emotion, but there is no life in their heart.
  • There’s no zeal, no passion, no blood coursing through their veins.
  • There’s no breath of the Spirit in them giving life.
  • There’s no true spiritual growth, no true spiritual fruitfulness.
  • They are hollow and deep shells, no life, lifeless, dead corpses—present but not voting—on display but no life.

There’s an absence of the Holy Spirit of God in the life or in the church. When the church becomes filled with people who have no spiritual life, then that church no longer has the right to be called a church. It’s an institution; it’s a mausoleum. It may be a magnificent tomb.

The word for that in the Old Testament was “Ichabod,” and that term could be written over many of our lives and many of our homes and many of our churches. The glory of God has departed; it’s not here anymore, but we keep going, keep living as if the old glory were still there, as if the Spirit of God were still there.

Satan doesn’t care how he gets you to Hell. He can get you to Hell on Skid Row, or he can get you to Hell playing church.

Let me say, by the way, that in the final analysis, those lost, dead church members are really no better off than someone on the street who’s going to Hell, shooting drugs into their veins or doing prostitution for a living. Satan doesn’t care how he gets you to Hell. He can get you to Hell on Skid Row, or he can get you to Hell playing church. He doesn’t care, and that’s exactly what he’s doing with millions and millions of people who are sitting in our church services week after week, dead corpses—present but not voting.

Let me ask you a question: Is your spiritual image, your spiritual reputation different than the reality? Has the Holy Spirit been quickening your heart, perhaps, as I’ve been talking over these last moments, showing you your true condition? Has He been showing you that you have a reputation for being alive, but you are spiritually dead? I think some of us have been thinking, Yes, my church is that way, or that church down the street, they’re that way; they’re dead.

The Scripture says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear—let the individual hear—what Christ is saying to the churches” (v. 6) So I’m asking you—do you have a reputation for being alive, but you are spiritually dead—propped up corpses, magnificent tombs—present but not voting?

Let me plead with you: Don’t blow off the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Face it. Be honest. Say, “I’ve got a reputation, a name for being alive, but God is showing me I am spiritually dead. I don’t have life.”

Let me tell you that if you are dead, as it was said of this church in Sardis, all the human effort and the manmade programs in the world cannot change that. You cannot change that. Why? Because dead people can’t do anything. They have to be born again by the Spirit of God. He is our only hope. Our only hope is Christ, Christ who raises the dead, the resurrection and the life. His Spirit can give you life.

So I want to plead with you: If God is convicting your heart, if He’s speaking to you about your lost condition or your dead or comatose spiritual condition, turn to Christ. Cry out to Him. Cry out to Him to grant you the gift of repentance and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Cry out to Him to give you life.

If God is speaking to your heart in that way and you’re realizing your lost spiritual condition, or that you are spiritually comatose, on the verge of dying out spiritually; I want to encourage you to write us. Let us know how God is speaking to you. We want to pray for you. We have a team of prayer partners who will do that. You can write us. You can send us an email. Go to our website, ReviveOurHearts.com, and we’ll tell you how to do that. Let us know so we can pray for you and believe God to give you the Spirit of life.

Leslie: And that web address is ReviveOurHearts.com.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been inviting you to contact us. Just visit ReviveOurHearts.com, and click on “Contact.”

Now, when you visit that site and click on “Donate,” you can get a Bible study booklet to help you take more steps in understanding the letters to the churches in Revelation. I hope this series won’t just be something you listen to and forget. This booklet will help you understand these letters for yourself. The booklet is called Ears to Hear, and we’ll send you a copy when you support Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any amount. Ask for it when you call 1–800–569–5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

We so easily use the phrase “the Word of God” to describe the Bible. Do you realize how incredible that phrase really is? Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth calls you to the wonder that God would speak to you tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Waking up to God's mission, on the next Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. It's an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

1 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/info/jb.htm ; Ray Ortlund, Jr – When God Comes to Church (p. 101) ; See R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990) 66; The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol 2 (Oxford University Press 1960) 276.

2 Beale, G.K., The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 273.

3 Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation , 73.

4 Donald Grey Barnhouse, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 66-67. 

5 Study Finds Evangelistic Effectiveness of Southern Baptists Stagnant Since 50's; Agape Press (6/9/05).

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